Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘DNA’

After Innocence

by Pat Hartman

Generally speaking, law-abiding folk who wind up in prison face a much worse time than the career criminals. We know this. But imagine, first, being accused and convicted of a heinous crime you didn’t commit. Then, for the rest of your life as an inmate, imagine being hounded, under the guise of rehabilitation, to make a confession. For the innocent, one of the worst ordeals is that the staff won’t let you just do the time, they’ve got to mess with your head. When the administration regards you as its number one challenge, and years of “therapy” are aimed at making you admit that you did something you didn’t do, that pretty much qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

When I get that I’ve-lived-my-life-all-wrong feeling, and think about untrodden paths, the one that inspires the most regret is that I didn’t go to law school. It takes a village-equivalent of attorneys to spring an innocent person from prison. I should have been one of those pain-in-the-ass lawyers.

Of course, documentation doesn’t hurt, either. Jessica Sanders wrote, directed, and produced this film; Marc Simon wrote and produced it. These stories are only a few from the 150 people the Innocence Project had helped to free, when After Innocence was made. Apparently, the exonerees are a very lucky subclass, because at least their cases did involve some kind of biological evidence, whereas many cases don’t. If I understand this correctly, only a fraction of those who want to contest a wrongful conviction are able to, because DNA evidence would be their only hope, only no DNA samples were taken. Then, it seems they are a fortunate subgroup again, because the DNA evidence was actually preserved long enough, and conscientiously enough, to be still useful. In many jurisdictions, the survival rate of evidence is not good.

One guy reacquaints himself with the world only to find that, after 23 years of breathing a recycled processed atmosphere, he’s allergic to fresh air. One told the judge that the administration of justice in their state is a crock of shit. One says he had “the worst lawyer on the planet.” There’s a guy whose father, a highway patrolman, wouldn’t visit him in prison. Another is a former police officer, and he believes thousands of people are incarcerated who should not be. In one case, the guy’s freedom literally hung by a hair. Another says, “I’m one of the strongest human beings ever created. I know that now.” One guy amazingly keeps a sense of humor, joking about reporters who ask, “Are you angry?”

Well, they have every reason to be angry. They would be serving life sentences, or dead by execution, if not for the Innocence Project, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The men whose stories are told here were cleared, or at least freed, by DNA evidence. A lot of times, exonerees can’t even get their records expunged. That’s one of the problems with life after innocence – there’s always residual trauma.

The system’s refusal to back up and correct its mistakes is only one of the many ugly offshoots of the basic problem, namely, too many wrongful convictions. I mean, one is too many, but this is getting ridiculous. The system is so recalcitrant, even people who have been proven innocent can’t get out.

And why should the establishment be so damn stubborn? After all, who benefits when the wrong person is convicted of a crime? Certainly not the victim of that crime, whose rapist or killer goes unpunished. Not the other, future victims of that criminal. And it creates another whole group of victims, the innocent person who is put away, and the family, and anybody else who depended on them. The only benefactor is the corporation that gets paid by the taxpayers to keep this person locked up. What kind of a way is that to run a justice system?

In this film we see parents who thought they would never hug their sons again, which is always nice. We see drawers full of letters from those the Innocence Project is unable to help. You say to yourself, “How could there be that many wrongly convicted people?” But, knowing that DNA is considered infallible, why would any convict with certain knowledge of his own guilt, bother to request DNA testing? We see clips from the Phil Donahue show, and an interview. His huge fanbase helped a lot in raising public awareness of this problem. Publicity is important not only to help the imprisoned innocent, but to spread the word about the possibility and consequences of wrongful conviction to potential jurors, which includes just about everybody.

Anger is only one of many emotions felt by exonerees. Some try to understand the greater purpose behind so much pain. I would imagine that for someone freed after a couple of decades, there would be a very strong impulse to create distance from the experience and try to move on. Even so, for many victims of the system, to move on is to take up the cause and become activists. When they were inside, they hoped someone outside would take an interest. Now that they’re outside, they do take an interest in the wrongfully convicted who have, so far, been left behind.

Here’s a scary fact: the single leading cause of wrongful conviction is good old eyewitness identification. In a film which overflows with human interest stories, one of the oddest and most heartening is of the woman who apologized to the man imprisoned by her testimony. They got to be friends, and she became an activist too. She tells an audience, “Change one person’s life and you change the world.”

We need to get back to where “presumption of innocence” meant something, say the proponents of what some call the “new Civil Rights Movement.” We need legislation to make states submit the DNA they have, to the national database for comparison, which could find the real rapists and killers.

The truly guilty, having paid their debt to society, are released on parole, and society then performs its obligations to them. They’re entitled to a whole range of social services to help them get back on their feet. The exonerees get don’t even get that much.

One of the things they fight for is compensation, for themselves and others like them, who have had big chunks bitten out of their lives. It would be nice to just break even, to be able to pay back the $150,000 your parents took out of their retirement fund to finance your defense, for instance. You’d think someone in this situation would at least be owed the back pay for the jobs they were removed from.

There are some bright spots in the movie: a prosecutor asks for forgiveness from the guy he put away, and a judge smiles as he signs the order to vacate a sentence. A district attorney apologizes. A Department of Corrections director realizes that his regime has been part of the problem, and needs to take on some accountability. A governor commutes the sentences of all death row inmates.

And then there’s an official who insists that an exoneree’s innocence is irrelevant, because “the system worked exactly like it’s supposed to.” Well, duh! That’s what we’re saying – this is how the system is supposed to work, the very thing that’s wrong with it. When a violent crime has taken place, as long as the outcome is a that a body occupies a cell, it too often doesn’t matter which body. That’s a system which needs to be fixed!

Of course, as we now know, not every aspect of every DNA test is infallible, due to methodology and interpretation and one thing and another. At least, not every instance of DNA testing can infallibly prove what somebody wants it to prove or claims that it proves. But I appreciate the spirit behind what one of the exonerees says:

“DNA is God’s signature… never a forgery, and his checks don’t bounce.”

Related:
Free Tim Masters Because
Lights…Camera…Freedom?
The Innocence Project

Note: The After Innocence DVD includes “Pearl Jam performing with exonerees Wilton Dedge and Vincent Moto,” and footage from the film’s Sundance premiere.

Read Full Post »